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‘Scream VI’ review: Slasher franchise spreads the news by excelling in character investment rather than trademark satire

The Scream franchise figures that it can make it anywhere if it can make it in the Big Apple.

Paramount Pictures

Veterans of the Scream franchise know how this goes, but just in case you need a quick primer – here we go. A collection of young people bond together through traumatic, life-threatening experiences (in this case, various psychos parading around in Ghostface masks trying to kill them) and then try to move on with their lives. There’s a reason they are targeted in the first place – then a dash of commentary about the horror genre ties it all together. This brand of particular slasher mayhem is mainly confined to the small town of Woodsboro, California.

Boy, do the law-abiding citizens of Woodsboro need a break, and Radio Silence (directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) has given them a reprieve. Scream VI moves to the bright lights and big city setting of New York City. If you think about it, that’s a perfect switch because the location provides many areas where the franchise can operate. Despite those possibilities, Scream VI still feels relatively confined (the film was shot in Montreal). Besides the subway (which could be terrifying enough) and a small convenience store, this could be any city in spots.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett strive to use that to their advantage in the set pieces for the rather brutal kills to come. After an entertaining opening, Scream VI picks up with the surviving champions of the previous story. Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) Carpenter have packed their bags and moved to Manhattan to start fresh while living together. While trying to establish the moving target of normalcy, the sisters are on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Philippe Bossé / Paramount Pictures

Tara wants to be an ordinary young woman living within a college experience. Given the full extent of physical and mental trauma she’s been through, how can you blame her? Twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) are also present and seem trying to move on. Mindy has a new girlfriend named Anika (Devyn Nekoda), and Chad is seen trying to help along a nerdy addition to the bunch Ethan (Jack Champion). Can’t say the same for Sam, who, in talking to a psychiatrist, reveals her dark side and lineage are raging inside her. Sam and Tara’s relationship is strained if that wasn't bad enough.

There is already enough here to figure out, but then you have to add killings start happening that are eerily similar to the Woodsboro ones. You can try to leave the Ghostface, but the Ghostface will never leave you. One of Scream VI’s story strengths is the more personal aspects. Writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick continue the Scream theme of family and how they deal with abrasions, both on the surface and internally. The “core four” are highly likable and somewhat complex in dealing with these skeletons following them 3,000 miles away. While they all have different things to contend with, there are many scenes where they are trying to figure this out together.

Another strength is the seamless integration of older characters from past iterations of the franchise and the new. The Scream veterans are noticeably down, but a returning Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and reporter extraordinaire Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox) make their screen time count while passing the baton off to the new blood. Now an F.B.I. agent, Kirby has an added investment in stopping this killer because of what happened in Scream 4. Gale is still writing books and profiting from those murders. With this, she serves as the guide to this film with a couple of enjoyable callbacks.

Philippe Bossé / Paramount Pictures

Sam and Tara’s new roommate Quinn (Liana Liberato) and Detective Bailey (Dermot Mulroney) get time to make their presence felt here and there – whether it be Quinn pushing Sam to talk to the cute guy next door or the detective being extremely suspicious of the Carpenter sisters.

While Scream VI still has the late, great Wes Craven’s D.N.A., Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett find ways to make this installment unique to them. They up the gore factor and installs many creative scenarios to ensure you know this Ghostface operates with an unrestricted level of viciousness. If the film has a weak point, it’s the motive. Let’s be honest; not much happened in the horror world in the past year (other than the irony of original films like Barbarian, Smile, Pearl, and M3GAN being successes).

The Scream franchise has served as a satirical mirror of whatever the central theme of the genre is at the time. With such a quick turnaround from Scream (let’s say five) until now, there is not much to say. Thus, when the quintessential turn happens, it doesn't shock as much as people may think. But why can’t Scream be a solid standalone horror film? With the narrative teased throughout the runtime, there is a compelling way they can take things. It’s the beauty of why a horror franchise like this can keep running with entertaining iterations.

Scream VI marks a series of films hitting a crossroads where these selections of films start to critique themselves. While there is a lot of aplomb familiarity here, the uncharted destination makes things much better.